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2014-04-04 08:29
What it's about:

An amoral advertising executive is kidnapped and held in captivity for twenty years. When he is finally unceremoniously and unexpectedly released, he embarks on a trail of violence and vengeance to find out who kidnapped him and why.

What we thought:

The original Oldboy, released way back in 2003, is a South Korean cult classic that took the  psychological thriller in a bold and unprecedented demented new direction that made its American contemporaries look almost immediately tired and uninspired by comparison. Like the best cult movies, it isn't perfect and it alienated anyone who wasn't ready for anything quite so full on, but it was a smart, stylish and viscerally engrossing piece of work that may have been based on an already existing manga (Asian comic book) but always felt entirely fresh and original. It was also, quite easily, one of the decade's most demented movies.  

Now, ten years later, comes the inevitable American, English-language remake. When it was first announced, it immediately evoked an incredibly strong negative reaction by ardent fans of the original who were hardly any happier when the cast and director were announced. It may be directed by the venerated – though often reviled – Spike Lee and it may feature a very impressive cast, but why remake the film in the first place? Especially because the original film's success was so tied into being the product of of the Asian, rather than American film industry.

And, it has to be said: the fans have been proven entirely right. Taken on its own terms, Spike Lee's Oldboy is a good, if quite flawed film but, despite changing one or two plot details along the way, there really is no need for it to exist. Lee may have claimed that his take on Oldboy was a reimagining of the manga, rather than a remake of the original film, but, as always, that's basically complete garbage.

It's not quite a shot for shot remake but Lee's Oldboy is basically the exact same film as the original, only shorter and far more conventional in style. It's well put together, sure, and the story is slightly different as it complicates some of the original film's plot points in the name of, I don't know, “realism” or something, but there's nothing that really sets it apart – not from the original or from most other halfway decent American psychological thrillers.

Aside for the more conventional direction and detrimentally abbreviated running time, the most obvious place where the new film suffers in comparison to the original is in the acting. While the performances in the original don't come close to what this American cast can do when they're on even average form, they helped make the film what it is by injecting a seriously twisted manic energy into their roles. Josh Brolin, for example, is a great actor but he displays none of the nutso intensity of his predecessor, while the usually very dependable Samuel L Jackson and Sharlto Copley deliver two of their worst ever performances by turning that nutso energy into something pathetically cartoonish. Only Elizabeth Olsen comes out unscathed, but then her character is easily the sanest in the film, so why shouldn't she?

Still, while it's possible that audiences that have never seen the original will be engrossed by the remake's still engaging story, by its brutal (if now overly choreographed) violence and its seriously sick twists, but – because it can't fall back on the original's uniquely manic energy or incredibly un-Hollywood filming style - they're just as likely to be seriously turned off by how silly and absurd it feels.

Either way though, it's a totally redundant remake that serves only to pacify those who refuse to watch films with subtitles. But honestly, if you're going to see something that's this self consciously out of the mainstream, would you really have a problem with subtitles?         

It may be perfectly OK on its own, but Oldboy is still a titally redundant remake of a far superior Korean original.

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